How to NOT get totally screwed as a freelancer

Whether you’re a 3D artist, a .net programmer, or a generalist web developer, you’ve probably entertained the thought of doing freelance work “on the side”.

The positives are numerous; the ability to make your own schedule, working mostly from home, and most importantly, the ability to name your price for your work. Yet, for all the benefits, there is at least 1 equivalent pitfall for that benefit, that goes along with being a pure freelancer. I’ll go over the most egregious ones below.

Non-paying client.
As a freelancer, nothing is worse than a client who doesn’t pay on time (or pay at all).

Pitfall #1: Non-payment
Man, nothing gets my knickers more in a bunch than doing freelance work and then not getting paid at completion. Not only is it a scumbag thing to do, but it’s also a great way to end up in court. At the beginning of my freelance career, I got caught off guard more times than I like to admit by clients who were late, or disappeared when payment was due. Luckily, as with any good freelancer, I learned from my mistakes.
Solutions:

  • Make Payment Terms CLEAR – Define rigidly the payment schedule. Whether you are taking a lump sum payment, or breaking up the payment schedule into milestones, be very clear about when payments are due, to the day. Any good project scope should be accompanied with a clear outline of when money is to be paid out. The first instance where money is NOT paid out on time, stop work immediately, and inform your client of late payment. Continuing to work is not going to be recognized as a good faith gesture, it’s just going to make you more irritated as you continue to pile up billable hours for which you are not being paid. Don’t do it. Make sure any late payment is documented in some way as well (sending e-mails occasionally about milestones, and their completion is a good way to keep communication documented).
  • Always take a deposit – This is something a lot of freelancers shy away from, because they believe it will make them seem greedy. No, that’s horse crap. It’s your only defense against lookie-loo clients. What are those you ask? “Lookie-loo” clients are the types of people who agree to a project outline, and even agree on payment terms, but say 1 week into the project, they may not like your personal design style, or they may not be as enthusiastic about the project, or are just trying to get you to do 1 weeks worth of web design for them so they can in essence get a “free preview” of what you can do, and will attempt to end the project prematurely if things aren’t going according to their own personal timeline. Ending a project relationship early is completely fine, from both sides. Sometimes you aren’t the right freelancer for the client, or the client is not the right one for the freelancer. Regardless, you should still be paid for the work you have done up until that point when they cancel the relationship. If you didn’t collect a deposit at the beginning, then you probably are SOL when it comes to collecting any money at all. My rule of thumb for collecting a deposit is usually 10% of a project’s total cost, or 50% of the first milestone payment. If a working relationship is discontinued, you return a pro-rated amount based on time (days or hours) that you worked on the project up until that point. In some cases, if enough days were worked on the project, you may be entitled to keep the entire deposit outright.
  • Outline penalties for late payment – On my invoices, I always have terms at the bottom that say when the invoice is due. I personally work on a net 21 system, meaning the total outstanding on the invoice is due 21 days after the project has been completed and delivered. If payment is late, I specify a 5% per week penalty meaning for every week the invoice is late, I add 5% from the original outstanding amount to the final invoice as a late charge. This gives the client a monetary incentive to be at least on time.
  • Outline benefits for early payment – Continuing the train of thought from above, I also give terms for early repayment in the form of a monetary discount. If an invoice is paid early, I will give up to a 2.5% discount on the entire invoice. I’ve found this is very effective on getting not only your outstanding invoice paid, but also getting it possibly paid weeks early.
  • The Courts – This is the proverbial last straw. If you’re at the point where you need to get legal counsel or involve the court system to get your money paid, leave no doubt, this is the worst possible outcome. Not only do you completely burn the relationship, but you now face the prospect of having to pay out more money just to get your original outstanding invoice paid. No client or freelancer wants to be here but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for it. Depending on the amount, small claims court may be a good option for you, especially to keep cost down since the cost of filing in small claims court is often far lower than retaining a lawyer. If you are at this point, make sure you have copies of all communication with your client, and all original project contracts and agreements ready to bring to court. Things like e-mails where the client is tacitly admitting they are late in payment but “will try to make good in a week” are very valuable evidence to help your case. Even if you win in small claims court, it still could be months until you see a single cent. For larger amounts (usually over $10,000), get a good lawyer, specifically someone who specializes in contract ligitation. In all likelihood, you will probably not get the full amount, and what you do get, a big chunk will be handed over to your lawyer. Just remember, it’s better than nothing.

How I Broke Into the Game Industry

The Journey Begins
When I was in college I used to browse the “breaking in” section of the IGDA forums occasionally, more for motivation than anything else. I would secretly cheer for the people who got their opportunity to work in this industry we all love so much. I’d also wait for the day that I’d get my industry shot. Now I have the chance to tell my story. I recently graduated from the Art Institute of California – San Francisco this year with a B.S in Visual & Game Programming and attained a job as a Gameplay programmer at Point of View Games in California.

Before I attained this position, I had ZERO experience as a game developer except for a 3 month stint as an intern for a mobile game company as a tool/GUI programmer. I thought this would hurt me quite a bit because a lot of people were saying I should have at least 6 months – 1 year as an intern before trying to apply for full time employment. In fact the job I eventually ended up getting said it wanted candidates with 3 years experience in the industry. So I guess developers examine candidates on a case by case basis.

The VGP program, of which I am a graduate of, basically splits coursework between technical and art topics. You get the typical CS background which includes courses in functional programming, OOP, and data structures + design patterns. We also do life drawing, 3D modeling/animation, and even compositing if you chose that as an elective. I know people in the industry use the adage “A jack of all trades is a master of none” regularly, but in my case I couldn’t help it. I delved into programming, modeling, animation, and even level design. Games are just something I felt passionate about and I couldn’t just concentrate on any one thing. A lot of VGP grads from the Art Institute I found went on to get technical artist jobs, or went on to work in the Film FX industry as TDs or FX artist. The program’s graduates have a 100% placement rate (production level jobs, non-QA).  In my personal search, I was 100% concentrated on the game industry.

The Six Layers of Game Industry Purgatory
At first I was fairly frustrated admittedly. I didn’t realize the turn around time from sending out a resume to the first phone screening could be almost 2 weeks, depending on how many applicants I suppose were applying for the position. So there was a lot of anxious waiting time where I basically tried to stay sharp by programming and doing 3D modeling in Maya, as well as MEL scripting. Eh… I also played a lot of Counter-Strike and Medieval II: Total War.

That being said it was a good 3 months of job searching before I got solid offers on the table. The basic string of events from start to finish with each interested company basically went like the following:

– Send out my resume, cover letter, portfolio materials (code samples, art, level designs, etc). I did this by e-mailing my materials through job postings I’d find on the net. This included scouring Gamasutra, Creativeheads, Gamejobs, CraigsList Jobs, and looking through GameDevMap for open positions around the country.

– 1st phone screening by HR person, occasionally I would get a programmer or artist on the phone during the first screening but it wasn’t common. They would mostly ask me questions based on my personality. Did I get along with people? How do I feel about working long periods of time with other people? Sometimes this would be preceded by an e-mail asking me basic questions about my goals in the game industry.

– 2nd phone screening. This always involved a senior member of the team, usually a technical director or art director depending on what position I was applying for, and it would always be on the speaker phone. They would ask me questions less based on my goals and personality, but more directed towards my studies and technical knowledge. I always found this uncomfortable because I wanted to give a perfect answer. But now I know they were more looking at my thought process instead of an actual correct answer.

– Written test. After getting screened, occasionally I would still get a written test in the e-mail to do especially if I was applying for a technical position. This would sometimes be timed (1-2 hours max), or sometimes more lenient (1-2 days, especially if I had to write a full program). At the end of the time limit I would have to immediately mail them back my answers whether I was done or not.

– If I did well on the phone screening and my submitted test passed the mustard, I’d usually get a call from a producer about being flown down for an in person interview. This was the most exciting part for me actually because I had not been on an airplane in my entire life before I started this game job search. So I got to see a lot of cities on stop overs. Vegas was scariest experience because of all the turbulence. I constantly prayed to God not to let my plane crash in the desert. Suffice to say, I’m not a fan of planes though I enjoyed the new experience.

– The in studio interview was often daunting. I’d get picked up at the airport, and get a chance to talk with an assistant producer on the way to the studio. I don’t know about what is considered proper dress code for interviews in the game industry but I always tried to dress in business casual attire (black slacks, dark blue collared shirt) and I would always wear a tie. A lot of the time I felt overdressed because people would be wearing shorts or hip hop clothing while I was sticking out like a sore thumb. No one made any smart comments or chuckled about how overdressed I seemed, so it was okay. The lead programmer or art director would then take me to different areas of the studio to talk with the team members where they would ask me questions. Some of them would be personality type questions (Describe times where you worked on team projects in school) or a lot of the time they would ask me technical questions (What is a cross product, why would you use one?). After a few hours of that, they would take me to lunch where I always felt like it was still part of the interview process because it seemed like they always had lots of questions to ask even while I was eating sushi or steak, even questions like “Do you like to play Guitar Hero?” Usually after that we’d go back to the studio and I’d talk with a producer about my salary history (of which I had none), and my availability (which I always said “immediate”). They’d also get my vitals down (SSN, contact details, etc). They’d usually end the interview by telling me “You’re a strong candidate for this position but we have a few more candidates to interview, we will contact you within a week.” Then I’d fly home and tortuously wait for a response on whether I got the job or not.

The Stars Align
The thing to keep in mind is that this entire process could take about 3-4 weeks from start to finish and at the time I was juggling different interviews with different developers. It was absolutely hectic sometimes as I’d be in Texas one week, and New York the next. I got over my “plane phobia” very quickly. Now a lot of the time, even after all that, I would get a flat out “No.” That would be the most disheartening part of the whole process because it had been so time consuming in the first place, and I had done so much work, I was almost sure in my mind to get the job. It’s a morbid feeling of rejection and failure, probably one of the worst feelings in the world. But I realize now it isn’t anything personal, and I shouldn’t dislike a developer for rejecting me even after putting me through that. I began to realize I may have just been beat out by better candidates who had more experience (certainly more than my ZERO). So I’d always recover after wiping away my tears.

However, on those rare occasions when the stars and moon aligned, I also managed to get a “Yes!” and those would be the most exciting times. This would be followed by a short phone call with the producer discussing the details of my offer and then I would get an e-mail with my offer as an attachment. It would usually be an offer letter with my salary, benefits, and starting date, I would be required to initial it. I also would get an NDA where I basically had to promise I wouldn’t discuss any secrets of the company while I was an employee there. This had to be signed as well. Regardless of whether I got a yes or a no, I’d always send a short e-mail thanking the company for the opportunity to interview. This was easy for me when I was writing to a company who had said “no.” The hardest thing was to say “no” to companies who had said “yes” to me. I always felt crummy, and horrible for doing that. I tried to make the e-mail as courteous as possible, but it never felt good. Everyone I met in the game industry over my 3 month job search was cordial, polite, and very passionate about games. I think I’d get along with 99% of the people I met if I worked with them.

So, that’s my story in a nutshell. I’m not sure if it’s considered out of the ordinary, or if it’s considered typical of college grads but it was an exciting part of my life definitely. Getting a game industry job straight out of college was a lot of work, but in the end I think it all paid off. I apologize for the long read but I hope it was helpful for those still looking for a chance in the game industry. Thank you for reading.